The recent excitement in Ole Miss men’s hoops brings back fond memories of a stretch in the late 70s into the 80s where Oxford and Ole Miss were riveted to the basketball Rebels.
I was in high school at Lafayette when Bob Weltlich was the coach at Ole Miss and tickets for SEC home games were coveted. Weltlich had come from Indiana University where he was an assistant to Bobby Knight. I remember someone in Oxford telling me with a serious face that all people in Indiana did was play basketball, so we figured he might stir up some excitement.
Oxford, Ole Miss and a big part of north Mississippi related to those Weltlich teams. They played so hard, executed with precision on offense, and gave all those SEC teams loaded with future NBA first rounders all they could handle, and more. Long before America knew of Sean Tuohy from The Blind Side movie, we knew him from conducting a Rebel orchestra of basketball. Tuohy was exceptional at his craft. If you looked up consummate point guard in the dictionary, his picture was there. When John Stroud flashed across the middle the ball was right where he needed it to turn and his his lethal mid-range jumper. Oh, how we loved Stroud. He was a north Mississippi boy from New Albany and little West Union High and when his jumper eked over those forwards, we cheered mightily. Joe Dean would say “string music” on the SEC TV broadcast.
Blue blood programs like Kentucky and LSU wouldn’t come within a country mile of recruiting our players, so we took great satisfaction when Elston Turner locked them down on defense and scored plenty, when Carlos Clark put in bucket after bucket, and when lumbering Roger Stieg held one jolly green giant after another at bay. We loved our role players. I mean everybody in Oxford and on campus was into those teams. Folks in Corinth, Hernando, Calhoun City, Tupelo and all over loved the way those teams competed. I can remember being an 11th and 12th grader at Lafayette and going to the games with my Dad and stepmom Annette, and then the next morning at school rushing into the library to get the Tupelo Daily Journal off the rack to read what Weltlich and the players had said. No, we couldn’t check our phones. We got the newspaper and several of us would stand around reading it.
I can remember back then it was a huge deal for us to get a NIT bid and one time I called Weltlich’s house from our rotary phone in our house six miles out of Oxford. I had looked up his number in the Oxford phone book, dialed it, and by golly he answered and somewhat tersely tole me who they were playing.
Weltlich left for bigger money at Texas after 1982 and Ole Miss continued to have success for a number of years. My sister Amanda was an Ole Miss student when the Rebels had perhaps their best team, 1997-98 team that was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament until Bryce Drew and Valparaiso upset them. Amanda still keeps a Bryce Drew doll that she stabs at work periodically, hoping he feels chest pains while coaching Vanderbilt these
But in my opinion nothing was like those precious years from 1979 until Weltich left. Ole Miss football had been sputtering before Billy Brewer came in and got things going. Ole Miss basketball had come from an era where it was viewed as something to take up time between football season and spring practice.
It wasn’t viewed in that neanderthal way when Weltlich was there, and beyond him for a number of years. Folks loved it. They talked about it everywhere from The Beacon to Smitty’s to just before Sunday School class at North Oxford Baptist Church. Our Sunday School teacher Dwight Sparks (the father of interim Ole Miss Chancellor Larry Sparks) was known to spend 20 of the 50 minutes analyzing how Tuohy had broken down the Georgia
defense. He would, however, get to the lesson as his wife Betty would hear him from out in the hall and tell him to.
I think another thing that made that stretch of late 70s well into the 80s so special was that SEC foes had superstars that stayed in school 3 or 4 years. Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Shaq and many more played through their junior years. You had the combo of world class talent coming to little Oxford and an Ole Miss team that played their rear ends off.
I have lived up here in Indiana (yes, all people do here is play basketball…still!) for a long stretch so I can only comment from afar, but it has been exciting to hear people say how talented this team is, how good they are, and how hard they compete. Heck, back then Weltlich’s record’s weren’t that great. 17-13 his fourth year in 1979-80, 16-14 the next year and 18-12 his final season. They won a SEC Tournament, they made March Madness for the first time, but more importantly they connected with north Mississippi folks in a way that has not happened since, but could be happening now.
Charlie Adams was born in Oxford in 1962. He was a 1980 graduate of Lafayette High School and a 1985 graduate of Ole Miss. Following a television news career, Charlie has focused on delivering inspirational keynotes, seminars and writings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.